Before Radhika Lee released her memoir, Rainbows in My Clouds, many of those who knew her could only identify her as the successful founder and director of Nairobi International School (NIS). But as the memoir reveals, the 54-year-old has risen above tremendous personal tribulations to get to where she is today. She took ESTHER KIRAGU through her turbulent past and how she finally redeemed herself.
A glance at a rather joyful Radhika Lee cannot give a true picture of what she has gone through in life. You have to interact with her to know what lies beyond the warm personality you first encounter. As with most success stories, Radhika’s begins with humble beginnings in a tiny village called Cherai in Kerala, India. She has fond memories of a rather normal childhood marked largely by family and religion.
“I spent a huge chunk of my formative years in India. I lived with nuns, despite being born a Hindu, during my schooling years,” she kicks off the interview at her offices in Lavington, Nairobi County.
A disrupted life…
Her life was rather smooth up until her family fortunes changed forcing her to seek employment in Kenya in 1986 at the age of 24. “In the 80’s, the socialist policy in India was unfavourable for job creation and I needed a job badly to provide for my family,” she says, adding that she found her way to Kenya with the help of an Indian friend whose father had come here.
But Radhika was soon to learn the highs and lows of life living in a foreign land, coupled with the struggles of the teaching profession. Her first job as a teacher of English in Mombasa was at a school in dilapidated conditions. “The classrooms were ramshackle but despite this, I still enjoyed being around students, attesting that my calling truly is to children,” she says.
Young and naïve, the Master of Arts (MA) degree holder hadn’t even bothered to find out what her salary would be prior to travelling miles away from home for a job. Luckily, after a rocky patch in Mombasa, she landed a teaching job in Nairobi and years later would go on to work in various schools some of which were of international status.
“My fiancée followed me here from India and we later on got married, excited to spend our lives together,” she explains. However, the joys would only last for so long. As she settled into her marriage, she soon found out that her husband was an alcoholic.
Despite the many dire, life-threatening incidents, she stayed on in her marriage, losing her voice, dignity as well as friends.
“In the end , I left home with my son who was then 17 years. And when my son pleaded with me not to go back to the house, I knew I had to do something as we had suffered enough,” says Radhika recalling the day she decided to break free from her 20-year-old violent marriage.
Setting up a school of international status…
Armed with her son, an enormous teaching experience, as well as a dream to start a school, Radhika ventured to a new path, recalling how parents regaled her with compliments on her seamless ease with youngsters. Having worked in the education sector for over 20 years in various positions ranging from teacher to school principal, she knew first hand the many problems that plagued Kenyan schools.
“Sometimes as a teacher you want to make changes to a rather rigid system and you end up feeling frustrated and helpless when nothing changes,” she explains.
And so when the challenge of trying to express her ideas for improvement to her employers continued to yield no results, she eventually decided that the only solution would be to take matters into her own hands. Thus the idea of the Nairobi International School was born.
“I approached several local financial institutions to help me raise raise funds but soon learnt the nightmare that start-ups face when looking for funding. I was turned away for lack of collateral,” she recounts.
Through the help of a friend, Radhika got to know about GroFin, a venture capitalist company that helps in financing and supporting small and growing businesses across Africa and the Middle East. “They agreed to partner with me and literally held my hand,” she explains.
Alas! On September 15, 2008, Nairobi International School opened its doors to 35 students from grade seven to 13. Three years later, she opened the preparatory section and six years later the kindergarten. It has been eight years since the inception of the school and it has over 600 students in its three arms – pre-school, prep – school and senior school. The school not only serves the local community, but also the international community.
A tour round the school attests to the state-of-the-art technology as well as a beautiful and spacious art studio, a music room complete with various instruments, two basketball courts and spacious playgrounds for students. The school provides laptops for every student and teacher, with the latter being offered endless training opportunities. A big believer of the need to conserve the environment, Radhika has ensured the school is eco-friendly. Each year, students and teachers alike commit to an eco-friendly project.
Her son is actively involved in running the school, a succession strategy to ensure smooth continuity of the school’s legacy. The two have a close-knit relationship. “We hang out and enjoy each other’s company,” she says lovingly adding she unwinds by listening to rock music, cooking and attending musical concerts.
Becoming an author…
Radhika says when she began to put down her life experiences in a journal; she had no idea that these would one day translate into a book. “I had been writing on and off for about 12 years, as a form of therapy because I didn’t have someone I could really talk to about my feelings,” she explains.
A nudge by Jeff Koinange, whom she met by chance at Heathrow Airport in London, led to a conversation about books and writing. She ended up sharing her manuscript with him and he thought it had huge potential. “I am glad he pushed me to finish writing the book and publish it,” she says of her memoir – Rainbow in My Clouds – whose title was inspired by the many dark moments in her life (clouds) as well as moments of hope (rainbows), a line inspired by the late American author and poet Maya Angelou.
So inspiring is her story that in 2012, John Couch, Apple’s Vice President (Education), asked her to speak to a gathering of 700 delegates at a conference in Vienna, Austria. In addition, her memoir has been selected as one of the books to be studied at the University of Nairobi.
Radhika hopes that those who read the book will find inspiration to never give up on life despite their circumstances. “Don’t get stuck in life no matter what you are going through. We all have the strength within us to move forward,” she says.
She has dedicated all the proceeds from the sale of the book to the Cancer Awareness and Treatment Support Initiative (CATSI) that she set up in 2008 as a corporate social responsibility arm of the school.
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